Beneath the patina of magical charm

Beating a set of drums, they go around the colony to spread the message, “We are together and nobody has left the colony.”

On the other corner, a trolley crammed with belongings is revving up its engine as it sets to depart the colony. Amid the humdrum activity of daily life, local boys stand around, passing cheesy remarks through songs. Away from this scene, 70-year-old Babulal Bhatt, a seemingly-at-peace -with-himself puppeteer sits in his house painting a puppet he carved out of wood during the day. The scene is set in West Delhi’s puppeteer settlement, the Kathputli Colony, that is at the cusp of change as Delhi Development Authority sets out on its first in-situ rehabilitation project in the Capital. 

Sounds of ‘merci’ and ‘de rien’ pierce the buzz around in Babulal’s little room as a French photographer clicks his pictures. Losing his patience, Babulal curses as kids in the slum gather around breaking his concentration.

“It takes me four days to make a puppet from scratch,” says the puppeteer as he lays it aside to speak to Metrolife. Ignorant about the Ishara International Puppet theatre festival in the Capital, the artiste proudly brings out a file to show the many international festivals he performed at in 13 to 14 countries worldwide.

 “How can I say how many years it has been, when I have lived all my life here? As the sheen of Rajput rulers faded away, our ancestors came down to the Capital. We cut jungles to set up tents in this part of the City later.”

On the question of rehabilitation, he unequivocally echoes the locality’s sentiment, “Why didn’t they think of cleaning our area before? Why is everybody talking about the dirt we live in? When they didn’t think of us all these years, how can we believe they are genuinely thinking of us now?”

“They are cultural representatives for India, then how can the Government take them for granted. Go to any corner of this colony, and you will meet people who are multi-talented, they have travelled to different countries of the world. The only thing they lack is academic education, perhaps that could have helped them at this hour,” says Babita Sharma, a human rights research scholar who has been working with the community over the past four years.  “In the name of beautification, and for making the city slum-free how can you take away their homes where their families have been living for over 50 years?” she asks angrily.

“My PM dead, no problem, the artiste drinks, enjoy!,” with a touch of sarcasm, Aziz Khan the magician spouts dialogues from his show ‘French-The Biggest Opera’ saying that when the French character in the show asks him what would he do if the country’s head dies, that is how the Indian character retorts to show a sense of indifference.

Heading a family of  nine, the magician Aziz Khan is a Guinness World Records holder for his great Indian rope trick. One of his sons is the only child in the family who goes to school. But when it comes to performing magic acts, he switches to broken English with a swagger.  “How can they pile up a magician, dancer, puppeteer and other artistes together in a multi-storey setup? Though we doubt we will ever be resettled in Kathputli Colony if we shift to the transit camp, but even if we are, a puppeteer hammering wood on the second floor, a drummer beating his drums on another and a magician performing a rope act where a rope magically moves up to a 20 ft height would be impossible, besides calling for a round of fights amongst
the neighbours.” 

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